In 2012, the Astros used the first pick to choose Carlos Correa, now their superstar shortstop, who homered and doubled in the winning run in Game 2 on Saturday. But in 2013, they chose Mark Appel, a Stanford right-hander who has not appeared in the majors. In 2014, they took a high school pitcher, Brady Aiken, who turned out to be injured.
In a way, those picks illustrate the finicky nature of baseball prospects. In a typical collection of three, one will blossom, one will fade and one will get hurt. The difference is the Astros knew when to bail on the two busts and how to salvage value from them.
When a physical exam revealed trouble in Aiken’s elbow, the Astros backed off their plans to sign him for a $6.5 million bonus. Negotiations fell apart, and the team used a compensatory pick in the next draft on Alex Bregman, now their starting third baseman.
And after their bullpen collapsed in a 2015 division-series loss to Kansas City, the Astros traded with Philadelphia for closer Ken Giles, putting Appel in a five-player package.
“Everybody knew who he was,” Giles said. “When you’re a No. 1 overall pick, everybody’s going to know who you are. For me, he was just another player that got his opportunity, and I was another player that got my opportunity. I just took a different route.”
Treating a No. 1 overall pick as just another player is not easy. So many people in the organization commit to the choice, Luhnow said, and everyone pays attention.
“You want so desperately for that to work out, to validate all the people involved in making that decision,” said Luhnow, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. “But there’s a concept in business school called ‘forget sunk costs,’ an economic concept that if things change, you can’t continue to invest in that outcome improving if it’s not going to get better. There’s certain times you just have to change your strategy. We did that in both cases.”
Appel needed elbow surgery last year and had a 5.27 E.R.A. in Class AAA this season. Aiken had Tommy John surgery within a year of being drafted by the Astros. The Cleveland Indians still selected him 17th over all in 2015, but he had a 4.77 E.R.A. in Class A this season, with more walks than strikeouts.
Giles, meanwhile, converted 34 of 38 save chances this year and has averaged 13 strikeouts per nine innings over two seasons with Houston. Bregman hit .284 with 19 home runs and 17 steals in his first full major league season. He quickly found his place in a lineup he feared would have no room for him on draft day.
“My first reaction was that they already had a really good shortstop, so I didn’t know where I was going to play,” said Bregman, referring to Correa. “Then they told me to play short in the minor leagues and then move to third base. But I thought it was a fun organization, so much youth. It was just kind of ahead of the curve in the analytical department and an organization that works really hard.”
The chances of finding a high-impact player drop significantly from the first pick to the second. In the history of the draft, which started in 1965, 21 players picked first have compiled at least 20 career wins above replacement, according to baseball-reference.com. Just 12 players picked second have done so.
But Luhnow said the Astros viewed Bregman as the best player in that 2015 draft class, ahead of Dansby Swanson, who went first to Arizona. Bregman played at Louisiana State, and Swanson — who is now with Atlanta — played at Vanderbilt. A senior scouting adviser, Charlie Gonzalez, vouched for Bregman’s passion.
“They both put up really strong numbers in strong conferences on good teams, and they both had similar track records and they both could play shortstop,” Luhnow said. “But there was really that extra baseball-rat element to Bregman.”
Had the Astros made a different choice in 2013, though, they would have already had a third baseman. When they took Appel — who had a clean medical history and sound mechanics and had been chosen eighth over all by Pittsburgh the year before without signing — they passed on Kris Bryant.
The Chicago Cubs eagerly used the next pick on Bryant, who was the National League Most Valuable Player last season and helped the Cubs win the World Series. Bryant hit 54 homers while batting .353 over three years at the University of San Diego, but he also fanned once every 4.7 at-bats. That scared off the Astros.
“Bryant had a higher risk profile just because he struck out at a rate that we didn’t have a lot of people to compare him to,” Luhnow said….